Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata
Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 2015
Pablo Heras-Casado, Rolando Villazón, Olga Peretyatko, Atalla Ayan, Christina Daletska, Emiliano Gonzalez, Tom Fox, Konstantin Wolff, Simone Piazzola, Deniz Uzun, Walter Fink
ARTE Concert - June 2015
La Traviata has nothing to prove. It remains Verdi's most popular masterpiece. Aside from the quality of the work itself, which is reason enough never to tire of it, there is always the opportunity to see its universal themes approached differently and to see how some of the best sopranos in the world take to it. At the Baden-Baden 2015 festival, we have the opportunity, for the first time as far as I know, to see Olga Peretyatko pit herself against one of the greatest works in the repertoire. Directing this production is none other than the troubled tenor Rolando Villazón.
As impressive a singer as she is, the casting of Olga Peretyatko is by no means an assured success. One of the finest bel canto singers of our time, Peretyatko has been impressive in her Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, as Blonde in Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and has shown some fine dramatic soprano capabilities as well in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride. Singing Violetta however is another matter. It's a challenging role to sing, with a dramatic and dynamic range that would put any soprano through their paces. Most importantly, it demands that a soprano bring something of her own personality to imprint upon the character.
Even in the modern age, La Traviata remains a soprano's opera more than it does a director's one, although a radical interpretation can get to the burning anger that lies in Verdi's fierce condemnation of social hypocrisy. That's evidently not what Rolando Villazón's circus-like production for Baden-Baden sets out to achieve. It's hard though to work out what angle the director is coming from though other than just making it a colourful, abstract and entertaining spectacle.
The circus stage is actually more of a music-box scene, with a few large colourful discs like gambling chips that provide good platforms for the scenes of all four acts. The idea seems to be that the music box is contemplated by the dying Violetta before the opera starts, prompting her to reflect on the significant scenes of her life in flashback. I guess a music box is as good a description for this opera as any, but I can't see how it benefits the drama in any way. As good as Olga Peretyatko is, there's just not much life in this production.
Few of Villazón's ideas really amount to anything. Violetta seems to identify with a blonde acrobat, who acts in some of the scenes as her double. Her appearances are fitful and arbitrary and it's not as if a double was needed to do some gymnastics. Rather it tends to make the connection and relationships between the characters rather awkward in some key scenes. In what is usually one of the most powerful scenes of the work for example, Alfredo's denunciation of Violetta at the party in Act III, rather than the usual flurry of notes cast in Violetta's face, Villazón finds another way of showing the violence of this action. Alfredo rolls the money up into a knife, but the impact is lessened somewhat when he thrusts it into the ground while Violetta looks on a little way off.
There's only so much Peretyatko can do this this kind of direction, which never really captures the dynamic of Violetta's journey. Vocally, she's impressive, with a distinct quality of her own, a gorgeous rich full tone and a flowing legato that is able to do full justice to the role. Played rather slower than usual, the pace allows her voice and her technique to be heard clearly and it never falters. Whether it's paced as such on her account or on the reading of the conductor, I don't know, but it does unfortunately suck the life out of the work, particularly the energetic Act I. She doesn't look the sickest Violetta you've ever seen in Act IV, although it's still almost impossible for you still not to feel the impact of her final moments, so well has it been managed and scored by Verdi.
The dynamic was also missing from the conducting of Pablo Heras-Casado. I was looking forward to seeing what the Spanish conductor did with this, having heard him conduct one of the best Die Zauberflotes I've ever heard at Aix-en-Provence last year. I was disappointed here. There should be energy, passion and anger here and it just doesn't come across that way. Very much worthwhile for showing how capably and largely successfully Olga Peretyatko can extend her range into Verdi's dramatic opera, this is however not the best production or musical treatment you'll see of La Traviata.
Links: ARTE Concert